Freelance artists have to wear many hats (artist, marketer,
accountant, etc.) and one of the ways in which they can take some tasks off of
their drawing table is with an artist’s agent. As you check out artists’
portfolios, you’ll often find links and bylines that read “represented by
so-and-so”. How does an artist come to be represented? What does their
representation do? What’s it like working with an artist’s agent or agency?
I interviewed several artists who are currently or have been represented in the past by an agent and asked them these questions and more. Below we’ll explore their experiences as a represented artist. Consider this your guide to what it’s like to have an artist’s agent.
What Does an Artist’s Agent Do?
Let’s start with the most basic question you may have: what is the benefit of having an agent? What do they do?
- Finding Work: Agents have access to a network of clients that you, a freelancing artist, may not. When an agent or agency looks at a potential artist for their roster, they want to make sure that they can be effective in finding work for them and that new artists that they represent will be effective at bringing work in to their agency.
- Marketing Artists: Some agents will send out press releases to current or potential clients about their new or current roster of artists. A lot of their work is in promoting the artists they represent, work that would take a lot of time an artist may not have if they want to keep working and creating art. Additionally, they are skillful and experienced marketers, which not all artists themselves are.
- Negotiating Compensation: Agents act as a go-between for clients and artists. Part of the agreement of working with an agent is giving them a cut of what’s made on projects (whether that cut is on all projects for a period of time or on projects they’re involved in would be determined by your contract). As such, they tend to negotiate fair compensation for the artist, often to industry standards, which not all artists may be able to do themselves. Art is a hard business, and having someone negotiating your work rates is a big boost.
- Contracts Sorted: Along with negotiating payment, agents and agencies will often have the legal side taken care of in a way that may be hard for an artist to do by themselves. For instance, using a contract template may work fine for you, but what if there are terms you didn’t consider to be covered for both artists and client? What if you’re working with a client’s contract and you’re not familiar with legal jargon? Having an agent can often mean someone has your back so you can focus on art and know your rights are covered thanks to their access to a lawyer.
- And More! Seriously so much more. From portfolio advice to hitting goals with dream clients, being represented can open doors and contribute to a more stable income for a freelance artist. Some artists with agents even work full-time in-house elsewhere and do their freelancing on the side. It really depends on your needs as an artist, the needs of the agency, and the needs of clients. Each experience is different, and what may be typical for one agent and artist may not be typical for you to experience when represented.
"It makes you feel good to say that an agent is interested enough in your work to take you on, but that's just pride. It’s not necessary to make a career in children’s illustration. But they can help you get to bigger clients, faster." — Josh J. O'Brien, illustrator represented by Beehive Illustration.
What’s the Benefit for Artists in Having an Agent?
We covered some of this above, but let’s dive in a little deeper. Thanks to the interviews I conducted with several artists, I was able to get a better perspective on what they have found to be beneficial for both sides of an artist/agent agreement.
The biggest benefit by far is maintaining a thriving business in a way that may be difficult for an artist by themselves. Access to an established client roster, someone pounding the proverbial pavement for new clients, someone to negotiate good and fair pay for projects, and someone to have your back legally are all top benefits for the artist.
"The jobs I got through my agency were generally of a very high caliber. They have pre-existing relationships with art buyers from big companies and were able to get my work directly in front of the art buyers' eyes. An agent can't force a client to hire you, but they were able to show my work to a lot of the right people and I'm very appreciative for that!" — Laura Tallardy, illustrator, formerly represented by Morgan Gaynin.
Another benefit is the community between the artists themselves within an agency. Networking may take place between artists, perhaps through something set up by an agent or agency, or perhaps they’ll be called upon to collaborate on a project. Regardless, there’s a camaraderie that can be built between artists represented by the same agency, big or small.
The agent or agency in turn continues to thrive with an impressive artist roster, happy clients, and a percentage of what each artist makes on their projects with clients. It’s give and take on all sides, and typically all sides receive some benefit to their business from the arrangement.
When an artist doesn’t see a benefit to having an agent, or an agency isn’t finding the artist to be a boon to their company, contracts may end, allowing both parties to go on their way. I think it’s important to understand that artistic representation isn’t for every artist, and not every artist is for every agent or agency out there.
"Red Fox is great at promoting work. My agent attends conferences and meets with publishers individually. They have clients coming to them specifically looking for an illustrator. Promotion falls on me as well (as it should).
"Most recently my agent and I talked about going through a post card campaign. The great thing about my agent is she is always available and glad to help in whatever area I need." — Neesha Hudson, illustrator represented by Red Fox Literary
Who Represents Artists?
Well, agents and agencies represent artists. I see you probably want a better answer to that question, however. Let’s consider some of the agencies that represent the artists interviewed for this article: Bright Group International, Lemonade Illustration Agency, Illustration Ltd, Morgan Gaynin, Beehive Illustration, Red Fox Literary, United Agents, and Advocate Art.
For some of that list, the agency represents artists exclusively (like Bright Group International), while others are also literary and talent agencies (like United Agents). Depending on their size, there may be one main agent who represents artists with their company’s team, or many agents who carry their own roster of talent accounts that they personally handle.
Another feature of agents and agencies may be to specialize in a particular geographic location or type of art. Some agencies will only work with artists from their country or continent, while others will focus on international talent. Some agencies will only focus on children’s illustration, while others will take on any talented artists that they feel will be an asset to their business, regardless of their portfolio’s specialty.
Understanding what an agency specializes in, who their clientele are, and what the other artists they represent do helps you to understand if an agent would be right for you.
"I am represented by the Bright Group International. They are a London based Agency that also have an office in New York and work with clients all over the world. Bright represent under 300 artists, so it is much like a friendly community with artists and agents often getting in touch on twitter, encouraging each other and even occasionally meeting for parties.
"One of my favorite things about being with an agency (despite the influx of illustration work!) has been the ability to network with and discover other illustrators who I can really relate to." — Lucy Fleming, illustrator, represented by Bright Group International
How Do Artists Get an Agent?
The million-dollar question many artists want the answer to: how does an artist find representation? For some artists, the agent finds them. Much like freelancing in general, clients, agents, companies, and more may find an artist through projects they’ve completed, their online portfolios, their social media presence, or through some other facet of networking. In these cases, agents or agencies are on the hunt for new talent and likely already feel that the artist would be an asset to their company and talent roster.
Many artists also submit work to agents or agencies based on the guidelines outlined on the agency’s website. Often there is a page that answers how they’d like to be approached (an email with a portfolio link, an email with images attached, a fax, etc.) and may even note what sort of artists they’re keen on adding to their talent pool. Additionally, this page may even indicate that they’re not taking on new talent and your efforts are better spent elsewhere.
"Advocate Art sent a call-out on Twitter looking for artists inspired by mid-century design. We thought, 'That's us!' so we got straight in touch." — Buttercrumble, the design duo Abigail and Chloe Baldwin, represented by Advocate Art.
If you find, by the way, that you’ve submitted work to an agent and either are rejected or never hear back, don’t let it completely discourage you. Your portfolio may not be right for that agent or agency or not be right for them at that time. Keep working it up and submit again in the future when you’ve either leveled up a bit or have fresher work to share.
Often agencies have a deluge of submissions and may take a while to get back to you as well. As such, flooding their inbox weekly would be a terrible idea. Be patient, grow your skillset and work, and try again in the future. Or it may be that your particular type of work doesn’t fit in with what an agent or agency has to offer. Not all professional artists have an agent, of course. Let’s move on to discussing what sort of work an agency may cover!
"Sort of by happy accident, really. I knew at the beginning of 2015 that I wanted to work with an agent, so I'd be able to get work that I couldn't otherwise get, like in the educational market, and with publishers who only accept agented submissions.
"I'd made a list of agencies I felt would be a good fit for my work, and Bright was number one on the list. After deciding I wanted to spend a bit more time working on my portfolio before I submitted, I wrote out an email to Bright and just saved it in my drafts until I was ready to send. Then, no joke, two days later I got an email from Bright offering to represent me!" — Stephanie Fizer Coleman, illustrator, represented by The Bright Agency
What Sort of Art Is Produced With Agents?
A good deal of artists I interviewed or approached to be interviewed fit into a few categories: children’s illustration, licensed goods illustration, advertising art, and editorial illustration. This doesn’t cover all the types of art produced by artists with agents, but it gives you a good idea of the type of work clients who seek out the work of represented artists may be after.
Publishers, magazines, stationery companies, and similar businesses may source freelance artists from known agents because they don’t have to spend as long looking for an artist for a project. Additionally, if someone is looking for a bunch of artists gathered in one place, sure they could sift through portfolios on Behance or a similar portfolio site, or they could pop on over to an illustration agency’s website and work with artists who they know already work with clients in the capacity that they need.
That said, not all work produced while under representation may fall within these categories. There’s a wide need for artists in the world, from illustration to design, and the best way to understand what sort of work agencies represent or what work is produced with them is to check out the websites of these agencies and see what they do.
"Most of my works produced under agency representation are children’s illustrations and fashion illustrations. They are mainly used for editorial or commercial packaging." — Helen Huang, illustrator, represented by Lemonade Illustration Agency
What’s a Typical Project Like?
The most common response I got for this question was that no project is the same, even if they’re working on something similar (such as a book or editorial illustration) to something they’ve done before. The process of acquiring a new project, however, tends to be typical.
- A potential client contacts the artist or the agent. If a client contacts the artist, depending on their contract terms, they may have to forward those messages or contact their agent to set up negotiating project terms.
- The artist’s availability will be noted. If the job comes to the artist through the agent, they need to make sure the artist is available before project terms are settled.
- Agents will iron out project details: negotiating pay, getting the scope of the project, negotiating contract terms, etc.
- Depending on how the agent or agency works, they may continue to act as a go-between for the client and artist or simply check in on both as the project progresses. Some artists have little to no contact with the client while others work directly with them, each reporting back to the agent as needed.
- Payment for the project comes through the agent once it’s finished, possibly weeks or months later. The exact terms are stipulated by contracts and vary from agent to agent or project to project. Additionally, there’s usually some sort of non-disclosure clause within these contracts, so specifics aren’t going to appear within this article.
"I will receive an email from a potential client which I will forward to my agents depending on where the email came from and they will contact the client for further information, or they will receive an email directly and fill me in on the potential job. Then we will talk money, usually going higher to start, and then meeting the client’s budget if it’s too high.
"Once the client agrees to the quote they will be put directly in contact with me to discuss specifics of the project. I touch base with my agents at every milestone so they are aware of where I am at in the project and so they can invoice accordingly.
"Overall, I wouldn’t trade it for anything because I’m able to focus on what I do best, and have people that always have my back in any client situations. Nine times out of ten, the client is awesome and the projects go nice and smoothly, with all parties happy." — Shauna Lynn Panczyszyn, typographic illustrator, represented by Illustration Ltd
Advice for Artists
"Don’t look to an agency as a 'quick fix' for your career – I think that this is critical. I have so many conversations in which it is clear that someone is in a panic, and the artist-agent relationship works best when the illustrator has a concrete understanding of their own business and a general sense of where they would like to go.
"Even with an agent it can still take a year or two to build up a certain momentum, and reputable agencies ALWAYS want to work with someone who is already an established and respected professional." — Kate Kelly of Morgan Gaynin.
"Stay true to yourselves and don't fight your style! Agencies can be great for getting your work out there but make sure they are the right agency for you." — Buttercrumble
"Show only the type of work you WANT to do. If you show things you’re not happy with just to show a variety, you’re going to get hired for that thing you don’t like. Working with clients, you’re going to be doing repeats of a lot of your biggest hits, so you want to make sure that you play and experiment outside of client work so you don’t stagnate, and so you can continue to grow as an artist." — Shauna Lynn Panczyszyn
"Build your portfolio, and make sure it is specific to the market you are aiming for and the agent you are pitching to. For me, it was all about children’s illustration, so I removed everything from my portfolio that did not represent that. I also removed any of the pieces I wasn’t sure about – if it didn’t represent me at my best, it wasn’t included in my submission." — Karl Newson, illustrator, represented by Jodie Hodges at United Agents.
The experience of artists working with agents varies across the globe, from artistic discipline to artistic discipline. The desire for a mutually beneficial relationship between artist and agent, however, seems to be a constant when looking at agencies and the talent they represent. At the end of the day, both parties are in a contracted business together, and the result is often fantastic artwork aimed at a variety of consumers.
If you want to be represented by an agent or agency, you may have to take the first step in putting yourself and your work out there. Maybe that means approaching an agent or agency with a portfolio of work samples, establishing a presence online so your work is visible to agencies seeking new talent, or networking with established artists. Much like other art careers, the key to getting the career you want varies, and no story is typical.
The artists I interviewed had a lot to share about their experiences, which you can find in quotes throughout this article. Their work showcases the variety of talent represented by agencies as well as the ways in which artists can boost their business under the wing of an agent. I hope you've found this interesting and inspiring.
Many thanks to the fantastic artists who took time from their busy schedules to answer my questions. You can, and definitely should, check out more of their work and their agencies at the links below!
- Shauna Lynn Panczyszyn represented by Illustration Ltd
- Helen Huang represented by Lemonade Illustration Agency
- Buttercrumble (Abigail and Chloe Baldwin) represented by Advocate Art
- Laura Tallardy formerly represented by Morgan Gaynin
- Neesha Hudson represented by Red Fox Literary
- Lucy Fleming represented by Bright Group International
- Karl Newson represented by Jodie Hodges at United Agents
- Josh J. O’Brien represented by Beehive Illustration
- Stephanie Fizer Coleman represented by The Bright Agency
- Kate Kelly, Consigliera at Morgan Gaynin